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Lake Street: Not so great—yet

July 03, 2012 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Lake Street is the commercial lifeline of south Minneapolis, teeming with storefront businesses, the state's second-busiest bus route and thousands of cars and trucks daily. But it is little changed from the day more than half a century ago when streetcars stopped carrying most of its traffic. Despite a much-needed facelift a few years back, it still lacks both a full freeway interchange and modern rail transit.

Now the Metropolitan Council is set to launch a transitway study that could put streetcars on the nearby Midtown Greenway in the next decade, linking the Hiawatha and Southwest light rail lines as well as all the destinations in between. Although Lake Street in many ways resembles University Avenue through western St. Paul, where the Central Corridor LRT will begin operations in 2014, the Minneapolis right-of-way is probably too narrow to squeeze in light rail.

Planners think, however, that streetcars could fit nicely in the Greenway, a below-grade former freight rail corridor that now accommodates bicyclists and pedestrians. Streetcars would link up not only with light rail, but also with bus transit hubs at Hennepin Avenue, Interstate Hwy. 35W and Chicago Avenue.

The Met Council is expected in July to authorize a $1.3 million study of the possibilities, partly funded by the federal government. Planning work could start in August, stretching to about the end of 2013.

This is a welcome initial step forward, although it carries no guarantee that a Lake Street-area transitway will be established. Other efforts to bring the crowded thoroughfare out of the 1950s are still hitting roadblocks.

For example, according to Finance & Commerce, a long-sought two-level transit station at 35W and new ramps connecting Lake Street to downtown via the freeway remain in limbo as costs, already estimated at $160 million, may rise significantly with a newly-identified need for greater stormwater capacity. Without it, federal officials say, the interstate would seriously flood in heavy rains. If the price seems exorbitant already, remember that the Crosstown Commons project 4 miles south of Lake Street cost almost twice that.

The Lake-35W project is planned to cover 15 more acres of land with impervious surfaces, generating runoff that would overwhelm the current 12-foot storm tunnel 100 feet under the freeway. Estimates to build a new one have run to more than $60 million, a price the city of Minneapolis has branded "unacceptable." Although planning for the project is expected to continue through next year, the necessary funding hasn't been committed.

Meanwhile, one of the best spots for transit-oriented development on Lake Street is also locked in stasis. It's a 6.4-acre site occupied by a small park-and-ride lot, the Midtown Farmers Market and the former Brown Institute building now used for adult basic education. Steps away, 4,000 light rail riders board Hiawatha trains daily, making it the line's busiest neighborhood station.

According to the Star Tribune, the property's owner, the Minneapolis School Board, backed out of an $80 million private redevelopment proposal it had solicited when it decided to keep adult classes in the Brown building.

With the building available for redevelopment, the project would have had 80,000 square feet of retail and office space, plus up to 575 units for seniors and low-income people as well as market rentals. Developer Mark Nordland called the site the best on the Hiawatha line for "true mixed-use transit-oriented development." A partial redevelopment plan excluding the Brown building is opposed by the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, whose leaders say they are willing to wait another 10 years for the right project.

That would be a shame. To get the most out of Lake Street's potential, it needs more density combined with 21st century transit options to keep all travel modes moving. South Minneapolis has waited too long already for this to happen. Here's hoping solutions can be found, roadblocks removed and a bright, vibrant future secured for one of Minnesota's great, historic commercial treasures.

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